[Note: The fictional essay, or as I dubbed it the “fessay,” is my literary invention. It is a grandchild of the O. Henry stories highlighting grim labor conditions and a cousin of Art Buchwald’s comedy sketches where two characters discuss the news. The unnamed protagonist is not me in disguise; I am six foot two and have never sold insurance.]
(NEWS ITEM: Toys-R-Us pays a prize to illegal immigrants for the first child born in 2007, despite a clear rule requiring citizenship.)
So I get a call and it’s the Pepster. His full and nominal appellation is Pepe Ruiz; he and I were born within blocks and minutes of each other back in the old country of Brooklyn. The year was ’60 with babies booming and wailing as far as the ear can hear. Kennedy was elected President and all the men were asking not and all the women were answering yes.
The two of us were merged and submerged from nonage as only a panicky Jew and a jubilant Hispanic can be. Now I’m a man who occasionally suffers from excessive subtlety, but the Pepster was as flamboyant a jester as ever gesticulated. We exploded cigars and whoopeed cushions and played three-card monty with a fourth up the sleeve. Our public school teachers begged for privacy and the local cops worked donut-and-a-half overtime. No one ever abused or disabused us, because we made them chuckle while gnashing their teeth.
His Dad, Chico, was a custodial engineering genius who pushed a broom for the Board of Ed for thirty years. No cobweb in the deepest corner was safe from his holistic approach to his craft. He was as civil a servant as ever tipped his grotty Yankees cap to the perky Home Ec teacher. He wouldn’t hurt a fly unless it entered the spider’s parlor just as the broom was poised to strike.
No one could cast an aspersion with any asperity on the Pepster’s legality. He was a duly appointed, licensed, passed and ported citizen of these U. S. and anyone endeavoring to challenge that dispensation would be dispensed with forthwith. He was a man of the people, about town, and occasionally overboard. Pepe and I were consummate New Yorkers who lived by the Golden Rule: ‘He who has the gold rules.’
Yes, he and I led quite a life. We had a good upbringing at home and could always bring down the house. We had complications in elementary school and low grades in high school. We went everywhere and emerged unscathed; we ambled and ambulated and perambulated and somnambulated but avoided ambulances. We lived the life Riley wanted, but he looked on in helpless envy. In adulthood, a term I employ loosely, we drifted aimfully into parallel fields, me selling insurance and him adjusting it. My gift of gab and his gift of grab insured us both incomes with heft.
But the Pepster had a gambling yen he could rarely convert into a dollar. His stallions were stallin’ and his fillies were fallin’; his roulette balls rolled out and his cards were discarded. The rest of his stash was spent on the ladies, who smiled on him more often than their compeer Lady Luck. “I buy them drinks,” he would tell me. “Because I can’t bear it when they whine.” His money was easier go than come.
“Get down here, you miserable Hebe,” he’s yelling on the phone. “Before I cut you out of my will.” He’s in the hospital, he says, room 1033, registered as Espedo Gonzalez, and I am not to speak English to him in front of the staff. I’m there in twenty minutes flat as a pancake because I have had a long day.
When I come into his room, a nurse is giving him some pills. He looks wan and sickly, thanking her in Spanish. As soon as she walks out, Pepe sits up and grins: “Good in a pinch, that nurse.”
“Speedy Gonzalez?” I demanded.
“I couldn’t resist. It was either that or Jose Jimenez.”
“Pep, why are you in here?”
“Bad spleen. My old corpus is going derelicti on me.”
“And why are you incognito? Creditors after you?”
“Well, I made the mistake of adjusting my own insurance, down to zero in fact. I canceled my health because I was low in cash.”
“And you lost that gamble too.”
“So the only way I could get admitted was by not admitting I’m Uncle Sam’s nephew. I’m pretending to be an illegal and they’re waiting on me hand and spleen.”
I pulled myself up to my full height of five foot seven.
“Pepe, you shock me. A man of your aspirations and exasperations, your achievements and bereavements, reduced to using deception at Reception? Uncle Sam wants you and he wants your tax money: that should be enough to make you feel wanted. Instead you pretend to be wet on your back and behind your ears so the ER will err in your billing? Say it ain’t so, Peppy Pep.”
“I’m surprised at you, pal,” Pepe said with a wink. “After all our years fighting racism, you go and put the Jew back in prejudice.”
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